One of the modern pains in the ass when it comes to having a bunch of people over to the house is figuring out what music to have playing in the background. Not only do I have to play amateur DJ, trying to traverse the social minefield of choosing the appropriate tracks — for which my peers will judge me on — but I also have to figure out how to deliver those sounds around the house.
Today’s digital jukebox solutions provide a wider range of libraries to play from, pulled out of an array of sources. This convenience of content choice can sometimes wind up trading off with a device that is cumbersome to set up and get playing nice with the audio equipment. I have rugs to vacuum and spinach dip to make — I don’t have time to also play IT. Can the Chromecast Audio find that balance of convenience and content that I need (out now for $40)? Let’s take a look.
In the palm of my hand
“That’s it?!?” were the first words dropping out of my mouth when the Chromecast Audio’s small disc, hog tied by two opposing wires, appeared on my desk.
The unit is barely big enough to not wind up threatened by a tin of Altoids, with a shape and design that reminds me of a fancy urinal cake. The Chromecast Audio’s physicality isn’t desperate for attention, let alone noticeably visually present on my shelf. It’s built for stealth and convenience, to be tucked away in a dark corner, most likely making a bed for itself in the years of dust settled behind my audio system.
The two cords that jut from either end are the Chromecast Audio’s power cord and a short green audio jack. I really appreciate the thought behind going with the stereo jack. I’ve been seeing some multimedia products lately that are creeping towards other forms of audio connectivity, such as Bluetooth or relying on HDMI, where the vast majority of us still rock audio hardware that utilize the good old metal needle of the audio input jack.
The length of the audio wire is a nice touch as well. If I connect it to the back of my audio setup, it will hang close to the source and not risk getting lost when it’s time to pull out. With a longer cord it would wind up possibly in the floor and eventually tangled among the creeping vine of electronic cabling. If I connect it to the front, again, it’s close to the source and won’t get lost. There’s no way of accidentally knocking it to the ground or losing it among the clutter sitting that close to the input.
Setting up the Chromecast Audio is stupid-easy. I just found a power outlet, slapped the audio plug into my system’s input, and downloaded the Chromecast Audio app on my phone. I added the unit to my Wi-Fi network, and within about five minutes, it was up playing music, leaving me just enough time to douse my couch with Febreeze before my guests arrive.
The Chromecast Audio app starts off with the Google Play Music service as the default source for streaming content, but it appears to support most popular streaming music services as well, such as Pandora, Songza, and Rhapsody.
For my MP3 collection, I tossed together a quick Plex server. Setting up Plex to throw audio to the Chromecast Audio was a pinch unintuitive, only because the Chromecast Audio app on my Android makes it seem like I can add Plex as a service to it, as if the Chromecast Audio app would connect itself to my Plex server.
No, what I wound up having to do is launch the Plex app on my phone and tell it to throw the audio to the Chromecast Audio unit. This makes sense, as it is much more direct than what the Chromecast Audio app was implying.
The quality of the audio coming through my speakers was adequate, or at least as good as a digital sound file being transcoded and thrown across the room through thin air can possibly be. I didn’t have any significant lag issues or stuttering to the stream, but I also wasn’t running the unit at peak time with the family hogging the network’s bandwidth. Obviously, there are a lot of personal factors involved here, so your setup and experience is going to vary.
The Chromecast Audio is a gigantic digital jukebox device in a small shopliftable package, although the low price point for all that value may make even the cheapest thief consider paying for it. Considering the convenience it provides, both in physical shape and audio delivery, it’s definitely a better option for parties than busting out a bulky laptop to sit clumsily by the speakers or tethering my personal phone to the sound system the entire night.
Google provided VentureBeat with a review unit of the Chromecast Audio for the sake of this critique.